50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Power

“It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
‘The horror! The horror!'”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

“Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who is doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.”

—from Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Welcome back, class.

From the start, I was comparing Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both focus on characters with mental illness, as well as the concept of mental illness, while tackling loosely related problems like American culture, sexism, and the conflict between the individual and society. But that’s it. Beyond that, the books are as different as The Diary of Anne Frank and the Harry Potter Series.

And what makes them so different? Kesey’s novel is only about mental illness on the surface. There are clearly characters who are mentally ill, including the narrator, but that illness is simply the backdrop for a larger story—a story about oppression, anarchy, identity, and society. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t about curing those who are ill, but about freeing those who are enslaved. There are issues with that approach, but the story is good enough to rise above those issues.


First of all, the writing is SOLID. Everything about Kesey’s style is original, enjoyable, clever . . . it’s audible and graphic and is meant to immerse you into the vivid and uncomfortable world of a mental ward. On this ward, tragedy and terror happen without warning, and the smallest of details cause the biggest impact—the writing reflects that, and the few peaceful scenes that occur take such sharp turns into chaos that, after a while, the reader realizes there aren’t any peaceful scenes at all . . . only anarchy and the build-up to it. The genius of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in Kesey’s portrayal of the story’s events, and if there’s only one reason it made the list, look no further. Knowing full well I can’t do his amazing style justice, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what I mean.

Then, there’s the story itself—Randle P. McMurphy is a criminal who pleads insanity in the courtroom, and winds up on the ward with the actual mentally ill. Within hours, he sees that the situation on the ward is a step above prison, but the countless restrictions make life about as flexible as concrete, and he decides that he won’t stand for it. The leader of the ward is Nurse Ratched, a domineering woman whose sole pleasure seems to be rigidity and order—every move she makes is to perfect the lives of her patients whether they want it or not. McMurphy and Ratched become fast enemies, and the rest of the patients get caught in the crossfire.


It’s easy to see McMurphy as the hero and Ratched as the villain, and while Ratched has next to no redeemable qualities, McMurphy is a far cry from a great leader or liberator in any scenario. His criminality alone isn’t a series of innocent slips—it’s implied he’s done some terrible things. He has moments of kindness, most of which are veiled maneuvers to try to get what he wants—more freedom on the ward for something trivial, or at least the ability to upset the power dynamic and throw Ratched off her game. But there are moments of rebellion on behalf of the other patients, and those moments make McMurphy more complicated and more interesting. Kesey refuses to let McMurphy fall into labels that trap him like “hero” or “anarchist” or “revolutionary.”

One of the flaws of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is its Hemingway-esque focus on masculinity—this is a novel about men and for men, with a sexualized woman as the villain. In this world, men are celebrated for things that are crass and inexcusable, disguised as rebellion against the established order. But, to be fair, in a world where the established order is a specific kind of oppressive—sexless, muted, inflexible—performing revolutionary acts that flaunt morality or social code may be inherently good. What bothers me is that these acts tend to be for men at the expense of women, and Kesey created a story that allows for that, knowing that to soften the backward-ness of these dynamic characters would be to weaken the story. The good and powerful themes of this novel come at that cost, so be willing to pay it when you pick it up.

Despite that backward-ness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a violent wit and a very, VERY well-told story. It may be played for crazy at the expense of the mentally ill, but it’s a novel that presents the distinction between society and its marginalized individuals with force and flare. I encourage others to read it with eyes open for the good, the bad, and the ugly.


That’s FORTY BOOKS DONE. Only ten more to go! There are some books in this final round that I’ve already read, and some that I know absolutely nothing about, so we’re not going into unfamiliar territory but we are reaching the end of our journey. I feel more enlightened already.

Next up is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, similarly controversial for very different reasons. I hope I can do it justice, because I’ve read this novel several times, and I’ve loved it and hated it, and even felt a high-school-indifference to it. We’ll see how it goes.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

His Dark Materials Trilogy

Hello again, class.

I started The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, months ago. Within a few chapters, though I barely knew the characters or the world Pullman had built, his writing drew me in—in a way that hasn’t happened with me since I read Harry Potter. Pullman’s teenage fiction novels are written like poetry.

I finished The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the trilogy, a few days ago. The series as a whole is controversial, intoxicating, and jaw-dropping in all the ways sci-fi and fantasy should be—it completely surpassed my expectations. I can think of hundreds of reasons why this book series made the list.


The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The story follows Lyra Belacqua, a young girl with a propensity for lying and storytelling. She lives in a world a lot like ours, with a few key differences—one being that every person is born with a daemon, a spirit-like animal that acts as a conscience. Lyra, with her daemon Pantalaimon and her friend Will Parry, gets caught up in a peculiar adventure, involving a kingdom of armored bears, a clan of witches hundreds of years old, a mystical truth-telling compass, a series of otherworldly portals, and a cast of characters with dangerous and obscure motives.

For all the plot over three heart-pounding novels—The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—Pullman never forgets the carefully structured theme of innocence in the face of corruption. Of all the enemies Lyra faces, the corrupt Church is probably the most intimidating. The Church of Pullman’s universe is overbearing, manipulative, and full of subservient agents who will do anything in the name of the Authority.

But for Pullman, it wasn’t enough to point out the corruption of religious institutions—his novels attempt to reveal corruption in the existence of God. He writes about the ongoing battle of humanity, between those who humbly submit to a greater power and those who seek wisdom and refute oppression. His novels point out the inherent immorality of a Kingdom of Heaven, like the immorality of any dictatorship in the modern age. The overarching plot of the trilogy goes so far as to use Christian theology (and mythology) to dismantle the Christian story of God—portraying God as the villain of humanity’s ongoing battle.


Naturally, the His Dark Materials Trilogy was met with controversy. Pullman’s story isn’t just atheistic (which can be controversial by nature)—it is also mature, saturated in sci-fi violence, and marketed for a younger audience. It’s probably still banned across the globe.

The trilogy makes a strong case for atheism, which was hard for me to read, but also helpful in my understanding of life outside of religion. I grew up with religion in my life, and I’ve come to accept those that don’t have religion in theirs—it’s simply not for everyone, and that’s a hard lesson to learn. I started reading The Golden Compass with something like a religious bias, and it made me read everything Pullman wrote with a grain of salt.

Author Philip Pullman

That doesn’t stop me from agreeing with most, if not all, of Pullman’s criticisms of the corrupt church he is familiar with. Religion has a history of abuse that cannot be dismissed, and those that choose to live with religion must always be aware of the power, and therefore the corruption, that religious institutions have a tendency toward. Aware of that corruption, Pullman pushes back against religious institutions through these novels—through literature, popular culture, and the education of young minds. Children will eventually have to make their own theological decisions in the real world, and books like the His Dark Materials trilogy can be a healthy part of making those decisions.


Like I said, these books were hard to read at times (I work at a church, for crying out loud!) but it certainly helped that these books were well written. It always impresses me when books have strong messages delivered by strong characters, and a fantastic fantasy world to back up big ideas. For a novel to work, all of the separate puzzle pieces have to fit together well, and the completed puzzle has to leave an impression. These three novels did both.

My next read is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and I’m diving into this one cold. I can only hope it’s good!

Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey

“”When you stopped believing in God . . . did you stop believing in good and evil?’
‘No. But I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.'”

—from The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Missing From the List: Oroonoko

Hello again, class.

Depiction of the 1776 performance of Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave

After reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe—and heavily criticizing its racism—I wondered if it was a worthy candidate for the 50-books list at all. For many reasons, I think it isn’t one of the books everyone has to read before they die, despite its importance. There are better books out there—the one I have in mind, in fact, treats the subject of race with more respect and accomplished the feat 30 years before Robinson Crusoe graced the page.

Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, written by Aphra Behn in the late 17th century, has a similar style to Robinson Crusoe, but tells a stronger (and very different) story. Oroonoko is a royal man from an African tribe, who was sold into slavery and thrown into the world of “civilization.” He defends his love, Imoinda, both in Africa and in this new environment, and when he tries to lead a rebellion, he is captured and brutally executed . . . one of the most distressing and terrifying executions I’ve seen from any story.

It can be hard to read, but it deserves to be on the list.


Historically speaking, Oroonoko is one of the earliest English novels, and one of the first novels ever to advocate against slavery. Aphra Behn is one of the earliest well-known female writers, and while Oroonoko was only considered a literary masterpiece long after Behn was gone, it paved the way for feminism, anti-slavery, and political treatment of minorities.

Author Aphra Behn

But the story of Oroonoko is more about power in the face of slavery. Oroonoko has power within himself—maybe it stems from his royalty, or from his ownership of self, regardless of those that claim to own him. His power challenges his enslavement. He remains true to himself after everything that happens to him, no matter how his owners and torturers attack him. They can’t access his inner power.

That’s his freedom. He is free despite what they do to his body, to his people, to the ones he loves. For all he suffers, he never loses what gives him his power: himself.


As important as this plot is, it’s only the beginning. Aphra Behn’s writing is subtle and ingenious. The use of the narrator is complex for its time, and the political messages are far ahead of the game. It is a powerful and moving novel.

Author Virginia Woolf has said that Behn, who spoke her mind bravely, is the reason so many women since then have been able to do the same. That alone grants Oroonoko a spot on the list of books we should all read before we die.


I’m still reading A Bend in the River—which could have learned a bit from Oroonoko, but I’ll hold back judgement until I’ve finished it. I like it more than Robinson Crusoe, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll see what happens.

Until next week,

Prof. Jeffrey